Austin troubadour James McMurtry steps into new role as festival ringleader



James McMurtry and Fred Eaglesmith, have much in common: both are highly respected rootsy singer-songwriters with fantastically talented bands, a take-no-prisoners live approach, avid fans, and quirky-but-endearing personalities. But only Eaglesmith has hosted the Root-on-the-River Festival.

Until this year.

After 14 years, the loquacious Mr. Eaglesmith has passed the Master-of-Ceremonies mantle onto Mr. McMurtry, who is generally a man-of-few-words. Except, of course, when he is singing.

In a recent phone conversation, I asked McMurtry, about his new role. "It will be interesting -- I’ve never quite done that before. Usually, we just blow in, play a gig, and leave."

Those who have been regular attendees of ROTR have seen McMurtry and his band blow in, blow the audience away, then simply leave.

For the Austin-based son of the famed novelist Larry McMurtry, the ROTR is a unique outdoor festival with an intimate backyard feel.

"The ROTR is one of the better festivals, it has that low ceiling tent, that makes it almost like a room. There’s a fairly low stage. The bigger festivals are horrors. The higher up you are, the further from the audience, the more space you gotta fill. You gotta hope they have enough PA to fill it. Half the time they don’t."

McMurtry will be playing favorites from his 25-year catalog and perhaps some fresh tunes that will rock Rockingham from a brand new record he is putting out in October with the help of New Orleans-based producers CC Adcock and Mike Napolitano, as well as talented folks like guitarist David Hildalgo (Los Lobos) and keyboard-player extraordinaire Benmont Tench (Tom Petty).

As for the lyrics on the new record, McMurtry explained that they are a slight departure from his recent excursions into cultural critiques.

"It is a lot more relationship-oriented than what I have been doin’ for the most part. CC said ‘you gotta get away from politics! Everybody hates politicians!’ So I am steerin’ in that direction. They are all character songs. That is how I write. I am a fiction writer, basically."

Just like his Dad.

But his Dad never did host a music festival like the ROTR, one where the separation between artist and audience is minimal. "Well, that can be a problem" explained McMurty with a chuckle. "If they get too close to me they might find out that I am an a--hole and blow the whole thing."

Dave Madeloni writes a music column for the Arts & Entertainment section. He can be reached at


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